All-weather prep for Verdana Blue Champion bid
The enemy could well come from within as Buveur D’Air targets a record-equalling third successive victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle after his stablemate and Christmas Hurdle conqueror Verdana Blue was on Monday described as an intended runner in the Cheltenham Festival day one highlight.
Following Verdana Blue’s shock defeat of 1-4 favourite Buveur D’Air at Kempton on Boxing Day, a tilt at Lingfield’s All-Weather Championship Finals Day was mentioned as the likely target for the Crimbourne Stud-owned mare, but Cheltenham has now emerged as the preferred option.
In an attempt to cover all bases, and in what amounts to an unusual stepping stone, Verdana Blue will prep for the Champion Hurdle with an outing on the all-weather at Kempton next month in a fast-track qualifier for the Marathon final at Lingfield.
“The plan is to target the Champion Hurdle,” said Crimbourne Stud’s Charlie Parker. “We were going for it last year but the ground went heavy and we swerved it.
“Providing it’s normal opening-day ground, we’re definitely going to have a go. If it was soft we’d wait and go to Lingfield.
“There’s a fast-track qualifier at Kempton over two miles on February 16 and we think that would be a nice prep for her and hopefully we’ll get her qualified for Good Friday at the same time.
“We ran her at Chelmsford three weeks before she won a Listed race over hurdles at Kempton and it worked out perfectly.”
The intention to prep Verdana Blue on the all-weather can be seen as another coup for Kempton following the equally unusual sight of Enable warming up for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the Sunbury venue in September.
The track’s clerk of the course Barney Clifford said: “It’s fantastic to hear and again demonstrates the importance of the all-weather programme that you can have a dual-purpose mare mixing it at the top over hurdles and on the all-weather.
“At Kempton we like our surface ‘standard to slow’, as it appeases the greater horse population and gives people opportunities and options.”
Verdana Blue’s surprise short-head victory over Buveur D’Air – who had been unbeaten on his previous 11 outings – led to plenty of head scratching, including at trainer Nicky Henderson’s yard, although Buveur D’Air remains favourite for the Champion Hurdle at no better than 6-4, while Verdana Blue can be backed at 12-1.
Parker feels such odds underestimate his contender: “I think people might be discounting her and saying Buveur D’Air didn’t run his true race or there was something wrong, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and we did,” he said.
“According to the stats she’s won more money on good to soft than any other ground condition, but if it were nearer good ground at Cheltenham we’d be very excited.
“Nobody thought she would beat Buveur D’Air other than us and she seems to be improving all the time, and that’s what’s so exciting.
“The first two times she ran at Cheltenham it looked like she maybe didn’t quite get home up the hill, but her performance in the Greatwood, when she didn’t get the best of passages before staying on really well up the hill, has given us encouragement that she’s a stronger mare.”
Among the BHA’s 17 recommendations in its Cheltenham Review published last month was the stipulation that the festival begins on ground slower than good. The Champion Hurdle is the fourth race on the opening day.Buveur D’Air will be looking to become the first horse since Istabraq – and sixth in total – to win the race three times.
Laurina, who like Verdana Blue will receive a 7lb mares’ allowance in the Champion Hurdle, was left unchanged as the 4-1 second favourite after winning a match at Sandown on Saturday on her first start of the season.